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    Kamala Harris: Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum Major

    By John Lewis–

    As I skimmed through my yearbook at my 40th high school reunion a few years ago, I stumbled upon my friend and fellow band member Marilyn Grant’s note to me that read: “Thank you for wanting me to try out for Drum Major—Boy was that ever fun.” 

    Memories flooded back to me of encouraging Marilyn to compete against the typical group of boys vying for the position and supporting her all the way. It was 1975. The Equal Rights Amendment neared ratification with 34 of the necessary 38 states having passed it. Unfortunately, the ERA has still not become part of the U.S. Constitution. But in fall 1975, Marilyn Grant became the first ever female drum major of the Center High School Marching Band in Kansas City, Missouri.

    Although Marilyn’s breaking the gender barrier in our local high school marching band may seem insignificant, decades of countless such victories culminated in this month’s triumphant election of Kamala Harris as vice president of the United States. In her first nationwide speech as vice president-elect, Harris thanked the many generations of women of all races, especially Black women, who tirelessly fought for the voting rights that made her election possible. “I stand on their shoulders,” she said. Harris also marches shoulder to shoulder as part of a movement with myriad Marilyn Grants as well.

    Harris, the child of Asian and African American immigrants, especially praised her late mother Dr. Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a biomedical researcher, in her speech. Like Harris’ mother, our late mothers were also Ph.D. academics, although 15 years earlier. Growing up, we experienced our moms’ struggles as women seeking their rightful place in their professions and family life in the face of blatant discrimination. This profoundly shaped our understanding of the world. And like Harris’ mom, Stuart’s mother overcame obstacles as an Asian American academic. Stuart’s mom was a professor of cross-cultural education, and like Harris, Stuart is a mixed-race Asian American. 

    We also grew into the realization that the movement for gender freedom and equality was vital to us because we were queer. As our mothers strove to defy gender norms, we too struggled to liberate ourselves from the constraints of gender. Our mothers’ struggles informed our own, and we saw them as deeply connected. It took over 50 years, but the U.S. Supreme Court last year finally recognized sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination as, in fact, sex discrimination. 

    Kamala Harris will soon become the most steadfast and outspoken supporter of LGBTIQ rights ever to be vice president. We met Harris while doing coalition work in 2005 to defeat Proposition 73 that threatened young women’s access to safe abortions statewide, and our paths crossed periodically through the years of the California marriage equality movement. Harris’ refusal to defend Proposition 8 in the federal courts was instrumental in its being declared unconstitutional.

    We remember how when Harris was locked in an extremely tight campaign for California attorney general against Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley in 2010, she unflinchingly vowed she would not defend Prop 8, even though she faced the same electorate who had passed it just 2 years before. Cooley promised to defend the measure. Harris won the race by just 0.77% of the vote. Personally, we’ll never forget how Harris took the risk to speak at one of Marriage Equality USA’s large rallies in San Francisco during the campaign.

    And we’ll always remember how Harris delighted in marrying one of the Prop 8 plaintiff couples in City Hall the afternoon the initiative became unenforceable. She then forcefully instructed a reluctant local Southern California clerk over her cell phone: “You must start the marriages immediately,” and added, “enjoy it—it’s going to be fun!”

    When President Biden delivers the State of Union address before a Joint Session of Congress in early 2021, two extraordinary San Francisco Bay Area women, Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris, will share the dais as Speaker of the House and Vice President of the United States. Although our nation’s pervasive partisan divisions persist, two women who embrace San Francisco values—and have strode down Market Street in rainbow regalia many times in the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade—will sit at the very center of American political power.

    My friend Marilyn became drum major as a junior and had to wait a year to become senior drum major. We can hardly wait for the day when a woman who embraces San Francisco values as American values delivers the State of the Union address and truly directs the band herself.

    Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    Published on November 19, 2020